Daniel Harrell on What a Christian Should Do When There’s Not Enough to Go Around

Photo courtesy: Phil Thep/Unsplash

Daniel Harrell is Christianity Today’s editor in chief.

The weeks slide from our fingers as the pandemic’s first wave moderates—whether due to our quarantined culture or the wiles of viral behavior. Pressure mounts to resume some sort of normalcy. On the one hand, normal is impossible as long as a vaccine eludes us. But on the other hand, surviving a sustained shutdown is economically and emotionally infeasible. Thirty million Americans have lost their jobs, nerves are fried, and happiness stays socially distant.

Reopening America comes at a high price. Given what we know about the coronavirus and its effects, there’s a tradeoff to be calculated between economic livelihood and human life. The quarantine’s goal from the outset has been preserving hospital capacity for anticipated surges. America is a country where health care, while expensive and notoriously complicated, is regarded as more a right than a privilege. But if too many people get sick and health care resources deplete, rights give way to privilege. The better off get better while the poor and marginalized suffer.

Such is the way of life, some would say. Nature must run its course. The virus exposes a surplus population, the elderly, and the mortal sin of preexisting conditions. According to a recent Pew survey, a majority of people with no religious affiliation (56%) said ventilators should be saved “for those with the highest chance of recovery in the event that there are not enough resources to go around, even if that means some patients don’t receive the same aggressive treatment because they are older, sicker and less likely to survive.” Economists do the math: A life is worth X, a job is worth Y, toss in actuarial variables, and generate a value on which to base a decision. Risk and price prove as efficient as they are heartless.

But a value and values are not the same thingIdeally when it comes to health care, the patient does the math based on their own preferences and personal beliefs. Providers then respond with treatment options available. Unavailable resources may press for a recalibration of utility over values, but Christianity resists. One’s personal conviction, prayer, Scripture, community, and trustworthy teachings supervene on ethical decisions. Thus, according to Pew, most evangelicals (60%) said limited ventilators should go to whichever patients “need them most in the moment, which might mean that fewer people survive but no one is denied treatment based on their age or health status” (the US average was 50%). Moreover, religious beliefs evoke suspicion of any human presuming authority over another’s life—God alone holds authority over death and life (Deut. 32:39).

Still, decisions have to be made. Years ago, I served a stint on a hospital ethics committee in Boston where we tackled organ donation after cardiac death. When was it OK to remove a heart for a consented transplant from a child after that heart irreversibly stopped beating? Hospital policy was to wait five minutes rather than the preferred two practiced by most medical centers. The reason was to provide the deceased with “spiritual wiggle room.” The hospital determined that five minutes should suffice for a soul to depart its body.

Nonreligious members of the ethics committee were nonplussed. With hundreds of children desperately awaiting organ donations, why risk organ viability by taking extra time for something that, scientifically speaking, we’re not even sure happens? The ethics committee turned to me (a minister at the time) for advice.

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Source: Christianity Today